AJ Jacobs is a living, breathing experiment. A bestselling author and renowned NYC journalist, his writing combines philosophy, Gonzo journalism, science, humor, and a dash of self-help.
He is the author of The Know-It-All, which documents the year he spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, uncovering both funny and surprising factoids but also poignant insight into
Please enjoy our interview with A.J. Jacobs!
You are known for immersion journalism in which you dedicate yourself to a particular lifestyle or experiment for an extended period of time, such as living Biblically for a year or achieving maximal
This began because I’d read endless books and articles about the benefits of gratitude, but wasn’t so grateful myself. So I decided to start a gratitude ritual: A prayer of thanksgiving before meal. The catch was, prayer doesn’t come easy to me. I’m agnostic. So instead of thanking God, I decided to thank some of the people who helped make my meal possible. I’d say “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes. And the cashier at the grocery store who sold me these tomatoes.” And so on. And one day, my 10-year-old son told me that my ritual was okay, but also kind of lame. Because the farmer and the cashier weren’t in our apartment. He said if you really care, you should go and thank them in person. I thought: “Hm. That’s an interesting idea. That’s a book idea!” So I decided to thank all the people in the world who had even the smallest role in making my morning cup of coffee (I chose coffee because I love it and need it). And I took it wide. Because I realized we need hundreds of people for every little item in our lives. I thanked the barista, the logo designer, the trucker, the highway-pavers, the coffee bean biologists, and on and on.
You say you are not naturally a grateful person, with a personality closer to Larry David than Tom Hanks. In what ways did you force yourself to be more grateful? What advice would you have for anyone trying to be more thankful in their daily life?
I think a lot of us are born with a strong Larry David side. In fact, psycholgoists will tell you that humans have an innate negative bias. We are very good at noticing what is wrong. If you hear a hundred compliments and a single insult, and what do you remember? The insult. This, no doubt, had survival value back when we were cave people. You wanted to really focus on the lion, or the poisonous mushroom.
But in today’s world, it makes life exceedingly unpleasant. For me, the key is to really pay attention to the hundreds of things that go right every day instead of the three or four that go wrong. I find it helpful to spend a couple of minutes counting up all the things that are going right at a particular moment. I press the elevator button an the elevator comes. I get in the elevator and it doesn’t plummet to the basement. And so on.
What sort of changes did you notice within yourself by being more grateful?
One big change was related to the Stoic idea of the self-interested case for virtue. The idea that acting badly makes you feel badly. That whoever does wrong, wrongs himself. But when you act virtuously, you get a little burst of happiness.
So during this project, I’d wake up in a grumpy mood, but I’d force myself to call or visit or email folks to thank them for their role in my coffee. Admittedly, some were baffled. They’d say, “Is this a pyramid scheme?” But the majority were really pleased to hear from me.
I remember I called the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is stored. And I said, “I know this sounds strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee.” And she said, “That does sound strange. But thank YOU. You made my day.”
And that, in turn, made my day. By forcing myself to act in a grateful way, I became less grouchy. Ideally, gratitude should be a two-way street. It should give both parties a little dopamine boost.
In your book you talk about the Stoic concept of memento mori (remember that you will die) and even how you have a skull in the corner of your computer as a reminder of your mortality. How has Stoicism impacted your thinking and work?
One Stoic idea I love is finding beauty in the mundane. Like Marcus Aurelias, who talks about noticing the flecks of foam on a boar’s mouth. I don’t encounter a lot of salivating boars, but this project had many similar moments. One of my favorite parts was noticing the amazingness of something so simple as the plastic cover on my coffee cup. Until then, I’d given approximately zero thought to the lid on my coffee. But I interviewed the man who designed it, and I was blown away by his passion. He was like the Elon Musk of coffee lid inventors (though hopefully a little more emotionally stable). He talked about how a bad lid can ruin your coffee. It can block the aroma, which is such a big part of the experience. So he designed a lid with an oversized hole in the middle for the aroma to escape, and a sort of upside-down hexagonal shape to let your nose really burrow in there. It made me realize there are hundreds of little hidden masterpieces all around us that we take for granted. Like the on-of switch on my desk lamp, which has an indentation that perfectly fits my thumb.
You talk about how culture overemphasizes the individual over the team. What do we miss out by overlooking the big picture about all that we have?
Yes, I think almost everything good in the world is the result of teamwork. The lone genius is mostly a myth. Consider my occupation: books. We have this idea of the sole author, which is miselading. Yes, I wrote the words. But my book is the result of hundreds of people – the editor, the designer, the lumberjacks who chopped down the trees to make the paper for the book. I actually proposed having a hundred names on the cover, not just my own. But my editor (probably wisely) thought that would be confusing.
We’re facing epic problems – climate change, pandemics – and these can only be solved by massive cooperation. So I think overemphasizing the individual is an impediment to that.
Are there any major figures you admire who exude or exuded the virtue of gratitude?
Well, I just got finished saying that we shouldn’t lionize particular individuals. So maybe I’ll mention a community that I think has a good attitude: The Effective Altruism community. It’s a movement that tries to combine rationality and compassion.
For the book, I talked to one of EA’s founders, Will MacAskill, a brilliant philosopher professor at Oxford. I asked him what he’s grateful for. He said “Sometimes I’m just grateful I have arms.” Which is an odd answer, but also wonderful. It’s easy to be grateful for a raise at work or a great birthday present. But it’s important to remind ourselves to be thankful for those things we totally take for granted.
Given the extent to which you thanked literally everyone involved in making your morning cup of coffee, do you think it is possible for one to be overly or too grateful?
Well, yes, I went a little overboard. I thanked more than a thousand people. So it was a tad time-consuming. I don’t recommend that unless you have several spare hours a day. But I do think most of us err on the side of being undergrateful instead of over-grateful.
It doesn’t require traveling the world. It could be little things — like sending a quick email to the designer of a logo you love. Or even looking someone in the eye. Eye contact is an endangered social habit.
Now that your book is finished, do you still try to be more grateful in everyday life? Is it a habit hard for you to shake off now?
Try is the key word. It’s a discipline, a practice. I can’t just assume I’ll be grateful.
One ritual I do that has resonated with a lot of readers: At night, while going to sleep, instead of counting sheep, I count things to be grateful for. And here’s the trick: Do it alphabetically. So I’ll start with A and be grateful for, say, the Apple pancakes my sons made me over the weekend. Then I’ll move onto B, and be thankful for Barry, the TV show with the briliant Henry Winkler. I go on like that – they can be small things, or big things – and I rarely make it to Z. I usually fall asleep around F or G.